Thursday, March 22, 2012

Hinkaali Maja

“What is Georgian food like?” my visiting friend asked after we'd ordered lunch at the Hinkaali Maja in Tallinn, across the street from the intercity bus station.
—Well, it's kind of hard to describe, I replied, not sure of how to answer. You know how in the US, Mexican food is easily the most popular, uh, minority cuisine? I ventured.
“Yeah,” he stared at me with mouth open.
—And in the UK, Indian food is the most popular minority cuisine?
“Yeah,” he once again replied.
—That's what Georgian food is here.
“But what's it like?” he pressed, fully aware I'd not answered his question.
—It has a lot of onion in it, I confidently stated.
He raised his eyebrows. “So, it tastes like onion?” he asked. He had been out of the US for only two days, his first trip abroad. Ever. I decided to have some fun.
—Are you familiar with Armenian cuisine?
He shook his head.
—Iranian food? Pakistani? Saudi? Moroccan?
“I've had Moroccan before. It was good.”
—OK, it's nothing like any of that.

My visiting friend—let's call him “Mike”, because he's American—seemed to be undergoing the initial stages of culture shock. Symptoms of this included short-temperedness, an inability to understand why anyone would ever do anything differently than what he was used to, and an unwillingness to blend into the surroundings. Go native. Do like the Romans do in their own city.

“What did you order me?” Mike asked. The small, English menu only contained a portion of the larger, Estonian and Russian menu, so I had ordered what I thought he would like.
—I can't remember. I think it was chackapuli or something similar. The waitress took the menu.
“Well what's in it?” he continued.
—Want me to ask?
He nodded, so I went to go ask the extremely attractive waitress, Krista. Her name wasn't really Krista, but I don't know how to say Krista in Russian. I found her, and she smiled. “You have question?” she asked in basic Estonian.
—Yes, my friend would like to know what he ordered, and I can't remember, I slowly replied in Estonian.
“Your friend not want to order...” she tried to understand.
—It's OK, don't worry about it. I smiled reassuringly and returned to the table.
“So what did you get me?”
—No clue.
“Didn't you ask?”
—I did, but her Estonian wasn't strong enough.
“She doesn't speak Estonian?”
—No, not really, I replied.

I could hear the up-coming conversation, quoted with perfection in my own future vision. Mostly because I had had this conversation so many times before. He would ask why she didn't speak Estonian, if she lived in Estonia. I would explain recent history. He would then judgmentally state with authority that she lives in Estonia, she should learn Estonian. I would say that's a very black-and-white, or rather red-white-and-blue, way of looking at things. He would say something about Mexicans in America. I would fail in attempting to explain to him that that was a very different situation. And we would reach an impasse, neither able to convince the other, each feeling they were right and the other wrong. Although in my heart I knew I was more right than he was. And that was a very blue-black-and-white way of looking at things.

The chackapuli was delicious, according to Mike. He had never tasted anything like it. I explained how it likely had fresh basil, dill, parsley and cilantro as the primary seasonings. I had eaten a late breakfast, so I just got the—surprise, surprise—khinkali, or Georgian dumplings. The khinkali at the Hinkaali Maja were indeed as big as a house. Because that's what the name means. Dumpling House. Each plate had six of the gargantuan Caucasian ravioli—spiced pork and beef wrapped in a floury pasta-like thing that looked like a head of garlic. They were a bit difficult to eat, but they were even more difficult not to finish. What I mean by that is, well, I'm not sure. They were delicious, but there was a lot of food and I didn't want to finish them because I was full. But I didn't want to leave anything on the plate either, because it was so good. The end result? I economized on space in my stomach by not drinking my water, and I finished my plate, thirsty all afternoon as the end result.

This place was better than Tbilisi in Tartu, and a helluva’ lot cheaper too. Larger portions, better quality, and smaller prices. And I think Tbilisi is pretty good. This place is better.

“I find it odd,” Mike suddenly began, “that in a restaurant that serves the cuisine of a country that was recently attacked and invaded by Russia, in a restaurant that is located in a country that was also attacked and invaded by Russia, there is a beautiful woman who speaks no language but Russian.”

My jaw would have dropped at this American's surprising knowledge of history, except I was chewing on a khinkali. “You're not going to let this go, are you?”
—No, Mike said. I mean, I just want to understand. Why can't they just learn Estonian?
“A lot of them do,” I encouragingly answered.
—But she's young. Why didn't she already learn it? Estonia's been free for ten years, now!
“Twenty,” I corrected him.
—It doesn't matter. Her parents have had twenty years, or whatever, to learn the language. You live here, you learn the language. I mean, you did, and you're American. We're not exposed to language like other countries.
I was honestly pretty startled and surprised by Mike's reasoning. “Look. There's a long and complicated history at work here. Russia has more or less 'owned' Estonia at several points in the past. Most Russians here today arrived by order of their Soviet government. They arrived as conquerors, colonizers in a way. Russifiers. And then one day, poof! It's all gone. The Estonians get back their country. Understandably, there is some enmity from the Estonians toward the Russians. But things changed so fast. Most of the Russians—most, mind you—were completely alienated from Estonians. And still are today. Estonians and Russians alike both find themselves in unfamiliar territory. 'Learn my language!' one side shouted at the other, then all of a sudden, 'No, you learn mine!' I mean honestly, everyone wants the same things—peace, security, comfort, and so on—it's just a language. Who cares? They'll communicate in one way or another anyhow.” And I finished my speech.

Mike replied with, “But it's their language. You don't understand what it means to have people in your own country who make up a huge part of your country, but don't want to learn your language. Who refuse, in fact. That's a very American thing for you to say.”

I was confused as to how the tables had been completely turned on me. Was he talking about Mexicans? Or Russians?

But he went on. “Yes, the Russians should learn Estonian. It would be considered a good gesture, to put the past behind them. Another way of looking at it is take advantage of every opportunity you can in life. Learn everything. Including Estonian. And the Estonians on the other hand should be more patient and encouraging too, perhaps. To me, it sounds like because both peoples are in unfamiliar territory, these are your words, because they are both here, in this new situation, maybe they are both just suffering from culture shock. Symptoms of that include always thinking you're right, and not willing to accept new things. When in Rome. That sort of thing.”

I just didn’t reply any more at this point. From his simplified, outside, fresh-from-America point of view, the Russian–Estonian thing was so simple. And from my slightly inside point of view—I mean, I’ve been here for well more than a decade, and I know many, many half Russian–half Estonian families, families for whom this issue is strictly a non-issue—from my point of view, I just couldn’t see it as being more complicated than how Mike described it. Even though I knew it was.


Anonymous said...

You oversimplify Your analyse of Russian and Estonian problem, but that can not be helped with such short article. But yes, I agree with You that both sides must work hard. I am Estoninan, this is difficult for me to admit.

Kristopher said...

Some of the Georgian restaurants aren't run by Georgians. Argo in Kadriorg isn't. We asked the owner to settle an argument - which has the larger area, Estonia or Georgia, but he said he wasn't from either and didn't know. Didn't ask where he was from, what if it was North Ossetian or something?

Jane said...

Ah, that food looks so delicious. I really miss Georgian food, I haven't had any ever since I moved from Russia to North America.